Michael Smith - the only St Helens player to qualify for the lucrative Unibet Premier Darts League - could hardly have hand-picked a tougher opening match in this year’s competition which gets under way in Dublin on Thursday, February 1.
Smith comes face-to-face with his mentor and two times world champion Gary Anderson - putting their close friendship on hold for at least one night.
‘Bully Boy,’ who is competing in the Premier League for only the second time, will then go on to meet Daryl Gurney in Cardiff on February 8, Mensur Suljovic in Newcastle on February 15, Simon Whitlock in Berlin on February 22, Raymond van Barneveld in Exeter on March 1, world champion Rob Cross in Leeds on March 8, Peter Wright in Nottingham on March 15, Michael van Gerwen in Glasgow on March 22 and Gerwyn Price in Belfast on March 29.
The season will include Judgement Night after nine matches when the bottom two in the league phase will be eliminated.
The remaining eight players then continue their battle to secure places at May’s play-offs in London, where the top four from the final league table will compete for the title.
Smith will, however, be hoping to start the 10-strong Premier League with a better opening than the one he made in the Milton Keynes Unibet Masters during the weekend - bowing out 10-8 at the first hurdle against Mensur Suljovic on .
The Austrian was in clinical mood as he punished Smith’s slow start by claiming the opening five legs without reply, taking out finishes of 70 and 77, a 12-darter and a 14-dart finish.
The St Helens ace hit back in the sixth to get off the mark, and responded to a 116 finish from Suljovic with a 130 bull combination and then took out double eight as he pulled back to 7-3.
Double seven gave Suljovic an 8-3 cushion, only for Smith to claim three legs in a row before taking out 110 and 80 to level the game.
Suljovic, though, fired in his second 116 checkout he claimed his first leg in six and settle any nerves before closing out victory on tops with a 14-darter.
“Michael is a very hard player so to be 5-0 up I was happy. I played well and my finishes were brilliant at the start, ‘’ said Suljovic.
“At eight-eight I thought I would lose but the 116 was super. I showed some good form.”
Smith’s home town colleague Dave Chisnall was also shown the exit door in round one of the Masters - suffering a narrow 10-9 defeat at the hands of five-times world champion Raymond van Barneveld who went on to reach Sunday’s final where he lost 11-9 to ex-world champion and fellow Dutchman Michael van Gerwen .
A high-quality opening saw the first four legs shared by Chizzy and Barney before the latter, aided by a break of throw with a 14-darter and a 13-dart leg, took three successive legs to move 5-2 up.
He extended that lead to 7-3 with the help of a 130 finish and a 96 combination, only for Chisnall to respond superbly by claiming four straight legs to level in 14, 12, 14 and 14 darts.
The next three legs were shared as Van Barneveld moved to the brink of victory at 9-8 before Chisnall landed his eighth 180 of the game in a brilliant 11-darter to force a deciding leg.
Chizzy added another maximum score, but was unable to finish 88 as Van Barneveld returned from a missed bull to land double eight to clinch victory
“I was happy with the win but I always seem to make it exciting,” admitted Van Barneveld.
“When I was leading 3-2 and 7-3 I should have made it easier for myself but I lost concentration.
“Dave came back fantastically but when he drew level at seven-all I knew that I just had to win my own legs and I did that. He’s a class player and to me still belongs in the Premier League so he has to fight back.
“In the last leg I had the luck but I’m working hard and I can look forward to my next round now because this would be a fantastic tournament to win.”